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Life Lessons and the Controversy of Sexual Health Education

As the youngest member of the CHI team, I am the closest to the tumultuous time we call high school. Though I am now three years into college, my high school days have had a huge impact on who I am. It was a period of immense personal growth, where the lessons I learned have shaped my young adult life.

Some high school lessons like geometry and grammar come with minimal controversy. But when it comes to lessons around sexuality and sexual health, the story changes drastically.

Growing up in Oklahoma public schools, my experience with sex education was limited to three years in middle school with a heavy emphasis on abstinence and no information on anything besides heterosexual relationships.  I was amazed when I came to university four years later and realized that my friends from other states had received a much different education on this topic. Sex education across the United States is far from uniform, and the decisions of what it looks like in each state are fraught with tension.

In Colorado’s 2019 legislative session, a bill around sex ed brought this controversy front and center. With more than 20 total hours of testimony on House Bill 1032, lawmakers faced the contentious decision of whether or not to alter the landscape around comprehensive sex ed. Given the importance of those early lessons for the future of young people, legislators had to carefully consider the impact of the bill.

In a new brief, Let’s Talk About Sex – Maybe?, CHI explores this very question of what HB 1032 will mean for the state and the health of young Coloradans in particular.

While it will not require school districts to offer sex ed classes, the bill updates requirements around what must be included if those classes are offered. Additions to the standards include things like consent, the health needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex youth, and information on all FDA-approved forms of contraception.

With the recent large decline in teen births, it might be surprising to some that Colorado policymakers chose youth sexual health as a focus. However, while teen pregnancy is often a proxy for everything from the availability of contraception to the effectiveness of sex ed, sexual health is much more expansive than just this one issue. Comprehensive sex ed touches on the prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), healthy relationships, and even mental health, all parts of young people’s wellbeing that goes beyond pregnancy rates.

In these areas, Colorado has a lot of room to grow. Rates of both chlamydia and gonorrhea are up across the state, while rates of dating violence and sexual assault have remained stagnant for youth. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) youth have worse mental health outcomes and experience higher rates of sexual assault and dating violence, with both disparities linked to experiences of discrimination.

These statistics were the main motivators for supporters of the bill who cite the public health benefits of sex ed providing information about contraception, consent, and all types of relationships. 

For many supporters, however, sex ed is about more than just sexual health outcomes. Sex ed is also a question of navigating relationships and building an understanding of all sexual orientations as healthy and normal – life lessons that can shape the trajectory of young people’s lives. Supporters believe these lessons have an impact that goes beyond the immediate years of high school – something that rang true in CHI’s research on LGBTQ+ inclusive curricula and consent education.  

While I am still reasonably fresh out of my time in high school, I sense that the lessons I learned then will shape me long after I graduate university next spring. I can’t say exactly what the impact of my experience with non-comprehensive sex ed will be. But with the implementation of HB 1032, Colorado can ask the opposite question – what is the impact of comprehensive sex ed for the many young people across the state?

The answer will matter, so lawmakers should pay attention to if and how these life lessons shape health across the state.  

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